Pens' Malkin set for emotional homecoming
The NHL lockout occupied Evgeni Malkin's thoughts as he weaved around moving crowds on the Red Square.
It was Aug. 17, and occasionally, as a bright sun set over Moscow, Malkin was recognized by Russian hockey fans. With St. Basil's Cathedral to his back and dinnertime looming, Malkin offered to buy a boy an ice cream cone, but the child's mother declined the offer from arguably the planet's finest hockey player.
“I want ice cream,” Malkin later said in English. “Probably my mother (would) say no, too.”
Natalia Malkin does not know what she will say to her youngest son Thursday night, when the reigning NHL scoring champion and MVP dons his hometown hockey jersey for the first time since one of the more famous divorces in Russian sports history.
Evgeni Malkin told the Tribune-Review that he should play for Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Kontinental Hockey League in a game against Salavat Yulaev Ufa. A standing-room only crowd near 8,000 — Arena Metallurg capacity is 7,500 — is expected.
“We want to be there getting ready for the NHL season,” said Magnitogorsk defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who like Malkin is playing on a weekly contract with the KHL club during the lockout.
“But, for Evgeni especially, this will be the next best thing. This is special because he is coming home, and maybe that is something nobody would have thought possible years ago.”
This is the Magnitogorsk version of Mario Lemieux's first game at Mellon Arena after his first retirement, though the situations are not similar.
Lemieux was a Penguins owner for his “re-debut” on Dec. 27, 2001.
The back story
Malkin is six years removed from fleeing his hometown club because owners pressured him into signing a contract intended to keep him from playing in the NHL.
The back story of his final days with Magnitogorsk is one of Malkin's least favorite topics, one rarely discussed even with his inner circle — including North American agent, J.P. Barry, who helped orchestrate an escape plan in August 2006.
Malkin said he was coerced into signing a contract extension with Magnitogorsk in July 2006. Club officials stayed at his parent's house until 3 a.m., leaving only when Malkin signed the deal to stay.
Barry found a loophole in Russian labor code that allowed an employee to terminate any contract. Barry suggested a plan for Malkin to leave the Magnitogorsk club during a training trip in Finland.
Working with a Finish security company, which handled logistics, Barry met Malkin in Helsinki in late August. They spent four days there awaiting visas approval from the U.S. Embassy.
After securing the visas and negotiating Malkin out of his original contract and the extension, Barry accompanied Malkin on a flight to New York and then to Los Angeles. A few weeks later, Malkin arrived in Pittsburgh to begin his Penguins career.
“It was very hard,” Malkin said through a translator last month from his Moscow apartment. “I did not want to leave my family in a difficult situation, and I was not sure then if I could ever go home again.”
Barry said resentment from Magnitogorsk fans waned after Malkin's first NHL season (2006-07), in which he scored 33 goals and recorded 85 points while earning top rookie honors. Malkin spent two days in Magnitogorsk with the Stanley Cup in August 2009.
Tension between the NHL and Ice Hockey Federation of Russia was at the root of the Malkin-Magnitogorsk situation in 2006, Barry said. Malkin, then only 19, was considered the best player not in the NHL, and the Magnitogorsk club looked at keeping him as a path toward a refurbished arena.
“But my dream was to play in the NHL,” Malkin said. “I love my home (Magnitogorsk), but in my heart I wanted to be in Pittsburgh playing against the best hockey players.”
As his heaviest summer training with Gonchar neared a finish early last month, Malkin broached the subject of alternative lockout plans with Barry. A homecoming was the obvious preference.
Officials from the Magnitogorsk club insisted that its bad ending with Malkin should not prevent the prodigal son from a triumphant return.
“I don't know what to expect,” Malkin said. “I hope they cheer.”
Barry predicted overwhelming moments for Malkin and his parents, who have spent the second halves of the past five NHL seasons in Pittsburgh.
“For the people to see him wear their uniform again, that's going to put the past behind everybody,” Barry said. “Evgeni is a big star in hockey, but in Magnitogorsk he's even bigger.
“This is one of those stories with the nice ending.”
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-5635.